drafty mountain hut

always at home, forever on the way

Month: August, 2015

Leaving home

by tendo

“In our culture, home-leaving is virtually nonexistent. Monastics have jobs, children, homes, and luxury vacations. Lay practitioners hop from retreat center to retreat center looking for a spiritual fix. We’re less and less able to give anything up. We want to become enlightened, but we don’t want to renounce the world. And what is even worse, we don’t realize that everything we attach to helps build up the layers of conditioning that prevent us from realizing our inherent nature.” (1, p. 114)

There are two barriers that particularly bedevil the western practitioner: extreme individuality and the notion that you can have it all. The latter notion is the one that we have erected in opposition to the notion of leaving home. Traditionally embarking on the great way meant that you renounced your previous life, that you fully devoted your entire self into the endeavor. When Buddhism came to the west it was the monastic practices that were adopted, but primarily into a lay practice.  The traditional practices of the laity (or householder) of course differed throughout various locals but were almost always focused on upholding the precepts and the practice of of dāna.

For all the diversity of Buddhist practices in the West, general trends in the recent transformations of Buddhist practice … can be identified. These include an erosion of the distinction between professional and lay Buddhists; a decentralization of doctrinal authority; a diminished role for Buddhist monastics; an increasing spirit of egalitarianism; greater leadership roles for women; greater social activism; and, in many cases, an increasing emphasis on the psychological, as opposed to the purely religious, nature of practice. (2, p. 35)

Buddhism transformed every time it moved into a new culture and much of that transformation can be seen as a positive development.  But as the practice of monastics was brought into lay practice all of the attachments of daily life were added to the already overwhelming barriers erected by evolution, history, culture and our individual development. Following the way is a process of shedding our attachments and the purpose of leaving home is to make a radical break from our primary attachments: home, family, possessions, status and identity. As Daido notes in the above quotes these attachments “…build up the layers of conditioning that prevent us from realizing our inherent nature.” and to break from them is an attempt to dig through those layers.  The degree to which that break is one of intention is key and it can be the case that making the choice to fully commit to the practice, to place it as your primary priority, to reject the priorities of the dominant culture, is to make that break, is leaving home. Furthermore he argues that to completely withdraw from society with all it’s responsibilities and burdens can leave us ill prepared to bring the practice into our everyday lives and beyond that can even be psychologically damaging.

Zen master John Daido Loori once complained that “most of the lay practice that goes on among new converts in America is a slightly watered-down version of monastic practice, and most of the monastic practice is a slightly glorified version of lay practice.… To me, this hybrid path—halfway between monasticism and lay practice—reflects our cultural spirit of greediness and consumerism. With all the possibilities, why give up anything? We want it all. Why not do it all?” (3)

If we take the position that western practice is inherently going to be different than traditional practice and furthermore that leaving home is primarily a psychological break then the question ultimately becomes: what does it mean to place the practice first. This is where the especially mendacious western notion that we can “do it all” comes in to play.  It has really been foisted upon us that we can be completely devoted to a job working long hours and still be the best parent in the world, have a rich social life, be engaged in the arts and still be “fully committed” to the practice. But the reality is the more our attention is fragmented the less is given to any one of these endeavors.  At best you can prioritize things and divide your energy and attention between these competing demands.  Basically we can’t ‘do it all’ and the notion that we can and the attempt to do so impedes our practice, is another barrier along the way.

Unfortunately there isn’t an easy solution to these questions. Each of us has to carve out our path and work out our priorities.  Most practitioners in the west are lay practioners after all and it has never been expected for a householder to make the same break as a leaver of home.  But even for lay practice the notion of ‘doing it all‘ is an impediment.  In the main the addition of meditative practice, of intensive retreats and other monastic practices that have been adopted into western lay practice are a positive development.  But the notion that one just has to work these endeavors into a packed schedule is counterproductive. The deemphasis of the precepts in western lay practice for these monastic practices – which traditionally would be undertaken by an individual already steeped in a culture based on the precepts –  fosters this delusion. The precepts and the eightfold path give direction on how to minimize attachments and how to prioritize our attention and point toward a simpler lifestyle where one can really put full attention on their practice. But as this involves giving stuff up and explicitly contradicts the western myth that we can have it all is it no wonder that this aspect is deemphasized.

“Practice has nothing to do with hope. Neither does realization. What is required is the kind of tenacity, the kind of vow that comes out of a strong, committed practice.” (1, p. 55)

For someone who does decide to leave home these concerns are even more intractable. There are few opportunities for a completely supported monastic practice in the west and many of those that exist have been rife with problems.  Many who would be attracted to monastic practice can actually be psychologically harmed by that situation.  But for one inclined to fully commit to the dharma, to truly place it as their primary focus, to devote the bulk of their attention and energy to the practice, how to avoid the “watered down” hybrid path? The answers to these questions are even less forthcoming, even more confounding. It once again seems that one has to carve out one’s own path.  But we are so good at fooling ourselves – a primary notion of the practice itself – that this seems fraught with peril.  Furthermore that other great barrier of the western practitioner, that of extreme individualism, can become insurmountable. Monastic practice is a many ways a support system that contradicts our instincts for individualisms, for distraction, for trying to “do it all”. To avoid all of thes pitfalls without such a system in place is incredibly difficult.

So in the end there are no answers only more questions. It seems likely that while every path will be to some degree an individual one, that degree is important.  There must be a support structure that at least points out when one is going the wrong way, fooling themselves or increasing attachments. Most of us will require a form that pushes us, some form of accountability and someone to call us on our bullshit. In the end there pretty much is no way around the fact that one will have to give stuff up. We can’t, in the end, have it all.


  1. New York, Dharma Communications.  ISBN: 9781882795215
  2. Alan Wallace (2002). Prebish, Charles S., ed. Westward dharma : Buddhism beyond Asia (PDF).
    Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22625-9.
  3. Jay Michaelson  (2013),  Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment
    Evolver Editions,  ISBN: 1-583-947140-0.
  4.  Householder (Buddhism), Wikipedia article.

Endless Vow

by tendo

Endless Vow Cover

“In the United States and also in China, all we can do is conduct this great sesshin [Rohatsu]. This, I believe, is the essential of essentials. Zazen, kinhin, zazen, kinhin. .” (1, p.87)

It snowed the night before Rohatsu but, as seems to so often happen here in Seattle, that weather system moved right through and it became clear and cold for most of next week. The traces of snow that remained by nightfall froze and persisted throughout that week which had the byproduct of causing one to be extra mindful when walking out of doors. Rohatsu was held at a retreat center right on the Puget Sound which this week was calm with only barely audible gentle swells disturbing it’s surface. Across the water and a fair piece of the mainland the Cascade Mountains, pure with fresh snow, provided a broken horizon for the cold rays of the late autumn sun to illuminate. A few days into sesshin, during outdoor kinhin under the icy blue sky, I recalled the following haiku by Sōen Nakagawa:

sky and water
reflecting my heart(1, p.52)

I had brought Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa, with me to Rohatsu to read during spare moments. There weren’t too many of these, but every so often something would strike me and I’d flip through the book for a corresponding passage or poem almost like a capping phrase to that event. The book was fresh in my mind as it was my text for the Autumn Kessei which I had begun reading during Autumn Sesshin. It seemed fitting to return to it during Rohatsu and just as in the previous sesshin moments in my practice and in the life and poems of Sōen Nakagawa would momentarily align.

Endless Vow is a collection of excerpts from Sōen Nakagawa’s journals, letters and published poems and there are quite a few long gaps when either he wasn’t writing or the material had been published elsewhere. The picture it gives is fragmentary and very personal: clearly not something he’d written with publication in mind. The loose strands are threaded together by a long biographical introduction from Eido Shimano, who was a dharma heir of Sōen Roshi. Shimano paints a picture of an introverted loner driven to practice who chaffed against the rigidity of the Japanese monastery system. In his biographical sketch Eido Shimano writes:

Sōen Roshi’s independent spirit, creativity, and aesthetic sensitivity were extremely attractive to me as a young monk, and I fell in love with him, as did his American students. (1, p.21)

In America, we delighted in calling him untamed; in Japan, they called him untrained, and some turned away from him.” (1, p.24)

I connected strongly with Sōen Roshi’s reverence for the poet-monks of Japan, his many solitary retreats, his penchant for travel and his devotion to Bassui. I had just this summer past spent two months bicycling in the mountains of the Cascades and Sierra’s sitting zazen at sunrise and sunset and contemplating the sayings of Bassui presented in Mud & Water(2). Like Sōen Roshi the wandering poet-monks are a profound influence on myself and while we travel in different worlds the nature of my travelling has brought me closer to them and reading them has influenced my travels. I write my own minimal poems on my wanderings, because I find in a few words a way to express things that I can’t otherwise say.

Endless is my vow
under the azure sky
boundless autumn (1, p.70)

But if there really is one aspect of Sōen Roshi’s character that defined his life it was his dedication as manifested through his many vows. In contrast to his unconventional, rebellious and wild nature that seems to reinforce that, if not exclusively American, particularly American emphasis on individuality, vows instead constrain ones actions. “On October 3rd [1931] I made a vow to live on one meal a day, following the Buddhist scripture. This has resulted in a new-day clarity and expansiveness in my life.(1, p.52) This was an additional restriction to an earlier vow he had made to only eat nuts, seeds and raw vegetables. Placing these sort of constraints upon his life, along with other such vows as walking barefoot around a mountain, chanting a text some large number of times and actively encouraging and praising others in such dramatic life-modifying ways, stands in contrast to romantic notions of the rebellious wanderer. As I took Jukai during Autumn Sesshin, which is a public vow that we Western followers of the way make, I spent much time contemplating vows and how serious of a matter are they. How many of us take these vows in the spirit that Sōen Roshi did?

Vow fulfilled
I enter the disk of the sun
this autumn day (1, p.128)

Another of Sōen Roshi’s great vows was to spread the Dharma around the world and especially to establish an International Zendo, a “place where true Dharma friends can gather from all over the world, a place not limited to just Buddhism or Zen” (1, p.63). By the late 1960s, with related Zendo’s in Hawai’i, Jerusalem, New York City, London, Cairo and International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo- ji in upstate New York he had fulfilled this vow. Much of his later years had been spent in this effort. This great vow of Sōen Roshi’s which he worked so hard planting seeds is truly an endless vow. The seeds must be spread but then they must be nurtured. Sit after sit I pondered this koan, coming to the understanding that while I may not have the missionary zeal of Sōen Roshi, I am compelled to nurture it lest it grow fallow. And at this moment of Zen in the West nurturing is perhaps what is truly needed. In January 1973 one month before I was born he wrote:

Great bodhisattvas
small bodhisattvas
together begin the Ox Year (1, p.137)

Sōen Roshi’s later days were marked by a head injury and increasing isolation. His journals became equally terse with some years only containing an entry regarding the years poetic theme and his attempt to realize it. “Sōen Roshi always said he admired “plain, natural and direct behavior,” but he was such as complicated, indirect, and convoluted person.” (1, p.45) This comment from Eido Shimano is perhaps the most vital lesson to be found herein. Sōen Nakagawa was a Zen Master in the contemporary era and his complicated nature was right here for everyone to see; the rough edges hadn’t been smoothed away by time as with the ancient masters. This renders him approachable, his experiences attainable. Their flaws is one of the gifts of the contemporary masters, allowing us to see ourselves, as imperfect, complicated, and multifaceted as we are, in them.

Autumn light
fills the room
vacancy(1, p.111)

On the sixth day of Autumn sesshin I felt strangely joyous and filled with light during the later morning sits.  There was a beam of sunlight coming in behind the alter that caught the incense smoke which was swirling in these absolutely mystical eddies.  I was completely transfixed by this until the complex edges (where the fascinating bits always are) drifted away and it was just smoke particles dancing in the light.

Death Poem

Mustard Blossoms!
There is nothing left
to hurl away(1, p.137)

Originally published in Plum Mountain News volume 21.4

  1. Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa
    Presented, with an introduction by Eido T. Shimano
    Compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Roko Sherry Chayat
    Shambhala, Boston and London, 1996
  2.  Mud and Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
    Translated by Arthur Braverman
    Wisdom Publications, 2013
  3. Plum Mountain News vol. 21.4 Winter 2014-15
    the Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji newsletter
    Seattle, 2014